"We have met the enemy and they are us" -- Pogo Possum
The latest episode of The Walking Dead had me thinking about the line above, perhaps the most famous quote from Walt Kelly's long-running comic strip, Pogo. It reminded me of a thought that occasionally flits across my frontal lobe about how so many of our iconic monsters seem to represent the threat not just of death, but also -- and maybe moreso -- turning Us into Them. If you squint just right, it seems to suggest that what we're most afraid of is ourselves.
Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. All of them turn Us into Them, turn friend into foe, turn our numbers against us. Yes, death is an element as well -- you have to die to become a vampire or zombie, and being torn to ribbons is the first, immediate danger of lyncanthropy. But, tellingly, you don't die to become a werewolf, and we're still afraid of that. Jekyll/Hyde dispensed with "the other" altogether and kept it in the (homo sapiens) family -- Hyde is the animal (and the enemy) within. If we want to stretch the concept further, we can include Frankenstein's Monster and The Mummy; the former is made up of fellow humans (albeit dead ones) and the latter is a human, or was. You'll note that The Mummy isn't a super-power resurrected animal of any kind. Because it isn't animals we're afraid of, werewolves notwithstanding. No, once again it's US that is the enemy, or potentially so.
One aspect of these monsters that's so frightening is that they look familiar, but don't act in a familiar manner. Your former friend is now a zombie, say, and while he looks like your friend (mostly), his behavior and priorities have changed radically. He's joined another team, and become a stranger. He wants to kill you, or worse, make you join his tribe. It's not really a stretch to substitute "John became a flesh-eating zombie" with "John joined a different church/worships a different God." It's the familiar turned un-familiar -- and the threat to make you do the same -- which frightens us.
Maybe it's that last part that is what is most frightening, the transformation of Us into Them. Maybe this is all just a huge metaphor for our fear of betrayal by our friends, of being victimized by other humans, and/or being too weak to live up to our own principles and becoming a betrayer, a monster, ourselves. It seems to me that one of our great fears is that we're not as strong in our faiths, creeds and beliefs as we'd like to believe. Many people grow most angry in a political discussion when the other guy's points begin to make sense.
We have actual industries in place to reverse these transformations. We have "de-programmers," for example, that kidnap family members who've joined a cult and essentially brainwash them into being like they used to be. That kinda creeps me out, too, and not just because it suggests how programmable -- how malleable and potentially transformational -- we all are. It's also because virtually all major religions were considered cults when they began, and only lost that tag when they became large enough to be institutional. In other words, from a classification perspective, all religions are cults until they become popular.
So who's to say we're right and they're wrong? As an illustrative example, I daresay we'd all be outraged if a de-programmer kidnapped a Southern Baptist and brainwashed him or her into becoming, say, Catholic. But what about an unpopular religion? What about a Hare Krishna? A polygamist Mormon? A Muslim? (It's now the second-most populous religion on Earth, but I bet a lot of Christian parents would gladly pay a de-programmer to "fix" a child who joined Islam -- and probably many of their neighbors, and the police, would look the other way.) What's the cutoff point where we say, "Oh, OK, that religion is all right. But those other ones have got to go."? Food for thought.
Another example of an anti-transformational industry, I believe, are the so-called "pray away the gay" groups. Your son or daughter comes out? Changes before your eyes into a "stranger"? Drag them to a religious-oriented programmer, who transforms them back into what you want. Evidently the "transformation" scares some parents, and even some gays, and they want to change it back. The parents long for their world before the transformation, like Rick & Co. in The Walking Dead, and struggle to re-establish it.
Speaking of The Walking Dead, creator Robert Kirkman has consistently maintained that the title refers to the surivivors, not the zombies. His intent is to explore what honest, decent people turn into when forced to do terrible things to survive. Ultimately, I assume, he will confront us with the question of who the monsters really are.
So there again we have the fear of transformation, of people becoming monsters, twice over. What does this say about us as a species? Does it mean that, despite hopeful fictional future utopias like Star Trek, that deep in our hearts we fear our lesser instincts will win out? Or is it a conservative impluse, of preserving the status quo and never changing? Or is it a fear of the stranger, of the unknown he or she represents? Or is it simply a tribal thing in our lizard brains, where we demand loyalty to our tribe, and what we hate most is those who join the other team? Or is it some sort of species-wide form of self-loathing? Or is it bigotry, a need to define others as something lesser so we can feel superior? Or is it all of these? Or a combination? Or something else?
To tell you the truth, I don't know. I have questions, not answers. What do you guys think?